Sunday 30 June 2019

The Prodigy (2019)

"Excellent Creepy Kid Horror"

The latest film from talented director Nicholas McCarthy (THE PACT and AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR aka HOME) gets a UK DVD and digital download release after its brief theatrical run earlier this year.

A girl runs screaming from a house. Her right hand has been severed. The police close in on the man who did it and shoot him dead just as Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to baby boy Miles.
As Miles starts to grow, Sarah and her husband John (Peter Mooney) start noticing that he's a little different to other children. He's uncommonly bright, has an extensive vocabulary, and mutters words in a strange language in his sleep. 

By the time he's eight and played by Jackson Robert Scott it's obvious that Miles isn't a normal little boy at all and it's all to do with that police shooting we saw at the start of the film. Exactly what is going on and why I'll leave you to discover, because it all leads to some extremely well executed scary stuff .

With THE PRODIGY, Nicholas McCarthy continues to explore the kind of themes he introduced us to in THE PACT, but whereas in that latter film the question being asked was 'Could someone be hiding in your house?', this time the question is 'Could someone be hiding in your child?'. Some truly unnerving scares, coupled with McCarthy's enviable ability to make the most unassuming of middle class houses seem almost unbearably creepy, suggests he might just be the closest thing twenty first century horror cinema has to Wes Craven, whose earlier movies very much tackled themes of horror assaulting the assumed security of middle class life.

Not that Craven is the only classic horror movie director to namecheck here. As in THE PACT there's a welcome Lucio Fulci feel - this time in an especially unpleasant scene in the basement - and fans of deliberate horror movie references should take a good look when a character reads a newspaper from Pittsburgh on her laptop. 
Vertigo's release also contains three tiny featurettes made to publicise the film, but you do also get a director commentary track that's well worth a listen.

With THE PRODIGY Nicholas McCarthy continues to fulfil his early promise. It's scary, suspenseful, has decent performances from its leads, and the ending left me nodding with satisfaction. Very much worth a look. 

Nicholas McCarthy's THE PRODIGY is out from Vertigo Releasing on digital download from 5th July 2019 and on DVD from 15t July 2019

Saturday 29 June 2019

Donbass (2018)

"The Ukrainian CATCH-22"

Sergei Loznitsa's award-winning ('Un Certain Regard' at Cannes) pitch black satirical comedy gets a UK Blu-ray release from Eureka.

In Eastern Ukraine, the Donbass region has been broken up into tiny factions by separatist gangs who are all at war with each other. At the same time many of these possess little organisational capability and are expending as much effort on infighting as in battling their opponents.

As we travel through the Donbass we are witness to a number of episodes that illustrate the horrors, the confusion, the frustration, the swindling and cheating, and above all the sheer ludicrousness of war. 

Despite being pitched as comedy, DONBASS is grim. Every location looks like a bomb site, filled with burning vehicles and with the chill weather adding a further biting edge to the proceedings.

I haven't seen any of director Sergei Loznitsa's other movies, but DONBLASS very much has touches of Franz Kafka, George Orwell and Joseph Heller, although this is a much bleaker film than Mike Nichols' version of CATCH-22. 

Eureka's Blu-ray comes with a couple of sound options (5.1 DTS-HD MA and LPCM 2.0 and you can play it without English subtitles if you want. An accompanying booklet features new writing on the film by Jason Wood

Sergei Loznitsa's DONBASS is out from Eureka now

Sunday 23 June 2019

American Horror Project Volume 2 (1970 - 1977)

"Fascinating Examples of Independent 1970s American Horror Cinema"

Just over three years after volume one found its way onto our shelves, it's a delight to welcome the second instalment in Stephen Thrower's valuable American Horror Project, dedicated to preserving some of the more obscure items put together by independent American moviemakers during the 1970s (the only decade so far covered by the series but who knows what we may get in the future?). 
As I mentioned in my review for Volume One, these are all films made by people working outside the Hollywood system, or indeed often any kind of system at all. Sometimes the directors in question only ever made one film before going back to their day jobs (or before being captured and returned to their longterm care facilities for all we know). Often quirky, frequently interesting (if only for their sheer bizarreness), and always low-budget, there still remains a wealth of weird and obscure  US films out there that deserve to be brought to the attention of a (slightly) wider audience than those who already know about them.
Once again, as in Volume One, the package contains three films in a gorgeously presented set. Here's what we get this time around:

Dream No Evil (1970)

First up is this slightly odd (and oddly slight) movie that was the first of three horror films made by director John Hayes, the other two being GARDEN OF THE DEAD and GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (both 1972).

Grace McDonald (Brooke Mills), having been rescued ten years ago from an orphanage by the Bundy family, is now engaged to Patrick Bundy (Paul Prokop) who is busy studying at medical school. Meanwhile Grace takes part in a travelling show with Patrick's preacher brother Jessie (Michael Pataki going full tilt at the lectern in this one) where she has to dive thirty feet onto a massive cushion to illustrate a literal descent into hell. 
Grace is obsessed with finding her missing father Timothy (Edmond O'Brien). She eventually does, only to learn he has recently died. Or has he? While Grace watches, Timothy gets up from the embalming table, kills the undertaker (Marc "I didn't know there was a pool down there" Lawrence from DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) and goes with Grace back to their farm, where the murders don't stop.

DREAM NO EVIL is a very gentle, measured piece that's a world apart from the typical exploitation product of the time. It takes a while for the plot to kick in, and with its voice-over narrator helping to explain things, at times it feels like a Season One episode of THE OUTER LIMITS. I think it's a more accomplished and consistent piece than the rather jerky and fragmented (and much better known) GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE. Just don't expect too much from it.

Extras include a filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower, who also narrates a thirty minute video essay on the career of director Hayes up to 1971. Chris Poggiali gives us twenty minutes on the career of star Edmond O'Brien, there's an audio interview with frequent Hayes collaborator Rue McClanahan, and an audio commentary from Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan.

Dark August (1976)

There's something of M R James and even more of early Robert Altman about Martin Goldman's Vermont-shot micro budget horror picture. City boy Sal (J J Barry) moves to the country and accidentally runs over and kills a young girl (played by director Goldman's daughter). Her grandfather puts a curse on Sal and he finds himself being followed by a shadowy cowled figure. 

Or is he? Sal has a lot of problems, not least paranoia and extreme anxiety. Despite being cleared by the ensuing court case his guilt over the girl's death constantly threatens to overwhelm him. Eventually he seeks the help of a local shaman (Kim Hunter) who promises to conduct a ritual to help him. But does it work?

With an even more measured, slow and deliberate pace to it than DREAM NO EVIL, like that film DARK AUGUST is another movie that's more art house than exploitation. It's the characters that are important here, and the everyday problems they have to deal with that may just have been added to by a vengeful spirit. How much you'll like it will depend on your predilection for character-led pieces with little in the way of the standard horror tropes of the period to liven things up. 

Extras include a Stephen Thrower appreciation, a director commentary, a piece by Stephen Bissette in which he catalogues a mammoth number of movies that have either been made in Vermot or which contain Vermont references, and interviews with director Goldman and producer Marianne Kanter.

The Child (1977)

It's time to play hide and go kill in 2K as we get to watch a true one-off from a director (Robert Voskanian) who sadly never got to make another feature. Of the three films under consideration here, THE CHILD is by far the goriest, the quirkiest, and the most off-kilter. Consequently it's my favourite of the bunch.

Pretty Alicianne (Laurel Barnett) arrives at a rambling old house in the country to take up her new post as governess to eleven year old Rosalie (Rosalie Cole). We already know Rosalie is bad news because we've seen her feeding a kitten to a living corpse underneath the credits (a movie first. In fact probably a movie only). 

Rosalie has the power to animate the dead, whom she terms her friends, but she's not above causing the local creepy scarecrow to go walkabout as well. The protracted climax involves a battle with the living dead and a typical 1970s ending. 

Don't for one minute let the above summary lead you to think THE CHILD is in any way an ordinary or normal film. There isn't a minute of this that isn't weird in some way, from camera angles to dialogue delivery, gory makeup effects to the weird music score that swings between lush piano and blippy bloppy electronic noises. THE CHILD is a remarkable, weird, disorientating unique piece of cinema, beautifully restored by Arrow. If you need a reason to get this set it's this. 

Extras include an appreciation by Stephen Thrower, who also moderates the new audio commentary track featuring director Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian. There are also new interviews with Voskanian and Dadashian, plus a trailer and the original press book. 

        THE CHILD aside, the emphasis of AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOL. 2 is on movies that depict main characters affected by subtle, quiet ,creeping dread. Prior to receiving this set I had never heard of DREAM NO EVIL or DARK AUGUST and having now watched them it's easy to see why. Whereas back in 1977 posters for THE CHILD were in every horror movie publication, the more ethereal nature of the other two pictures suggests they would have been much harder sells, with distribution consequently extremely limited. Which just makes this set all the more valuable for giving them to us in these lovely restored 2K transfers. Arrow are to be congratulated for rescuing such titles from obscurity. At one point Stephen Thrower remarks that he wishes every American small town had made a horror movie. So do I, Stephen. Let's hope we get to see more of the ones that were actually made in future sets of AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT. 

Arrow's AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOLUME 2 is out on Blu-ray on Monday 24th June 2019

Thursday 20 June 2019

Voodoo Man (1944)

"Black & White Trash Delight"

"She's not here! She must be somewhere else!" Rejoice as Fabulous Films brings to UK Blu-ray and DVD one of the infamous 'Monogram Nine' - nine films Bela Lugosi made for the ultra low-budget outfit Monogram Pictures in the 1940s.

George Zucco, in tank top and tie (when he's not in his full voodoo gear), runs a remote petrol station. When solitary young lady drivers stop by asking for directions he sends them, via a fake diversion sign, to the house of Dr Richard Marlowe (Lugosi). Marlowe is trying to resurrect his wife who died 22 years ago using 'exotic voodoo rituals'. 
So far they haven't worked, leading to four zombie women in the cellar and a baffled local police force of two. When Stella Saunders (Louise Currie) goes missing it's up to our screenwriter hero Ralph (Tod Andrews here acting under the name Michael Ames) to solve the mystery and prevent his own wife-to-be from falling into the evil Dr Marlowe's clutches.

VOODOO MAN only lasts an hour and was directed by William Beaudine, unflatteringly and possibly unfairly referred to by the Medved brothers as 'One Shot' because of his tendency to film everything in one take. One can sense a certain breathless urgency to get the film finished in time here, with occasional flubbed lines and missed cues all being retained. 
But it's not the mistakes in VOODOO MAN that make it the enjoyable piece of cinema that it very much is. It's a script filled with lines like "Fetch my dead wife!" and "She deserves a good paddling!" combined with enthusiastic performances from Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine (giving us an essay in sleazy dysfunctionalism that must surely have influenced David Hess) that are the reasons to watch this. 

Oh yes, VOODOO MAN feels like an Ed Wood picture if Wood had actually been a competent director. The story is ridiculous and the sets are flaky, but there's a vigour to the enterprise combined with a cheery amateur dramatics (or even school play) feel that makes the whole thing utterly charming. 
Probably best watched at about 3am when weird stuff like this suddenly takes on a magic all its own, Fabulous Films' presentation is probably the best VOODOO MAN could look. I hope we get at least another couple of the Monogram Nine given this kind of excellent presentation. The disc contains no extras, but now I really want releases of at least THE INVISIBLE GHOST and RETURN OF THE APE MAN. 

William Beaudine's VOODOO MAN is out on DVD & Blu-ray from Fabulous Films on Monday 24th June 2019

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Two Films by John Woo (1976 & 1979)

"Two From Woo!"

Eureka are to be commended for bringing out two lesser known 1970s martial arts classics from director John Woo, better known to Western cinema goers for modern classics like 1997's FACE/OFF, A BETTER TOMORROW (1986) and HARD BOILED (1992). So what do we get in this set? 

Hand of Death (1976)

aka SHAO LIN MEN, in which a Shaolin monk (Tao-Liang Tan) is given the task of finding and killing a Manchu warlord (moustache twirling - well he would if it was long enough - James Tien) who is trying to destroy the Shaolin. Aided by Jackie Chan in an early role, our hero has to combat not only the lead villain but Sammo Hung and his bizarre plastic teeth in a movie that is the epitome of kung fu epics of the era.

Which means we get superbly choreographed fight sequences against beautiful scenery. The lead doesn't have that much charisma  and it's a bit slow going at first but HAND OF DEATH builds into great kicking and chopping entertainment.

Extras include a commentary track by martial arts cinema expert Mike Leeder, a whole range of dialogue options including Cantonese, Mandarin, and two different English dialogue dubs. There's also an archival interview with the director.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979) 

LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY starts at a wedding where nearly everyone ends up killed after the husband-to-be's arch rival turns up with his army of assassins. It doesn't help that the bride-to-be is in his employ and stabs the groom. The only survivor swears revenge. But he's not the hero of our tale. 

He employs two hired killers, Cheng San (Wei Pei) and the wine guzzling Green Suit (Damian Lau), claiming he needs their help when actually he's manipulating them into storming his enemy's citadel on their own. 

The fairly slight plot is an excuse for some jaw-dropping swordplay and the film as a whole demonstrates how Woo had developed as a film-maker since HAND OF DEATH (which I suggest you watch first). A noticeably bigger budget helps as well. Your ability to suspend disbelief will determine how well you like the climax, though, as it all gets a little over the top. 

Extras include the same number of dialogue options as for HAND OF DEATH, a commentary track from Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, an archival John Woo interview and a trailer. The set also comes with a booklet featuring new writing on both movies by Matthew Thrift.

TWO FILM BY JOHN WOO is out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 24th June 2019

Sunday 16 June 2019

The Woman in the Window (1944)

"Classic Fritz Lang Noir"

Eureka have just released Fritz Lang's landmark film noir on Blu-ray.
Mild mannered professor Richard Wanley (Edward G Robinson) kisses his wife and children goodbye as they go off on vacation, and then elects to spend the evening at his club with some friends. Outside the club is an art gallery and Wanley is taken by the portrait of a woman in the window. His friends agree she is spellbinding.

Late that night and on his own, Richard finds himself staring at the painting once more, only to come face to face with the model (Joan Bennett) in the flesh. She tells him she has more of the artist's work ("only sketches, and all of me") back at her place. 

Richard goes there for a drink. A man bursts in and attacks him. Richard gets handed some scissors with which he stabs his assailant - to death, it seems. In an act of the most naive chivalry, Richard says he will get rid of the body if the girl cleans up the flat, which she agrees to. Needless to say, neither the body's disposal, nor the days which follow, are filled with anything other than creeping dread. 

Considered one of the best film noirs of all time, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW boasts a number of engaging set-pieces, the most atmospheric of which probably comes at the end of the first act. Lang piles on the rain and wind and ratchets up the tension as Robinson (very much cast against type here) tries to drive his car to the most remote spot he can think of. The boy scout who discovers the corpse is a nice interjection of humour, too. I won't say any more in case you haven't seen it, but hopefully needless to say the climax provides a most satisfying surprise as to what's actually been going on. 

Eureka's transfer has a few scratches on the print, but it's still in pretty good shape. Extras include an audio commentary by Sara Smith and a new video essay by David Cairns. There's also a booklet with new writing on the film from Amy Simmons and Samm Deighan as well as archival materials.

Fritz Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is out on Blu-ray from Eureka now. 

Saturday 15 June 2019

The Night Sitter (2019)

"The Three Mothers Go Babysitting"

That, plus the credit 'A Film by Roller Disco Massacre' (aka writers-directors Abiel Bruhn and John Rocco) should give you an idea of the tone of THE NIGHT SITTER, the latest VOD release from Signature on their Frightfest Presents label.

Amber (Elyse DuFour) arrives at the house of psychic investigator Ted Hooper (Joe Walz) to babysit his reclusive artist son Kevin (Jack Champion) and Ted's girlfriend's boy, Eric Cartman wannabe Ronnie (Bailey Campbell). Ted's study is locked and holds the promise of numerous artefacts he's collected for a possible TV show. 

Amber is not her real name, however, and she isn't there for the artefacts, but for the money and valuables in the house, which she intends to steal with the aid of Rod (Jermaine Rivers) and his truck. While she's busy organising crime, the boys are busy picking the lock to the study and unleashing the spirits of three witches who proceed to cause gory havoc throughout the building. 

THE NIGHT SITTER is drenched in Bava-esque lighting (all fuchsias and mint greens) and fans of classic Italian horror films will have fun spotting the numerous homages to certain shots (my particular favourite riffed on Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY). 

The film is very much a horror comedy, but after a promising start it does rather start to go off the rails by the final act, becomingly increasingly hysterical, gory and silly. That said, it's by no means a terrible film and as an undemanding piece of dayglo-coloured horror fun you could do far worse. The acting is fine and funny, the love of classic Italian horror is extremely endearing, and there's a good bubbling 1980s-style synthesiser score from Rob Himebaugh. In the end it's more Peter Jackson's BRAIN DEAD than Bava, but if gore comedies are for you then this one is worth a look.  

THE NIGHT SITTER is out on VOD from Signature as part of their Frightfest Presents series on Monday 17th June 2019